How does she do it?
How does the Perfect Mom manage to care for her children 24 hours a day, cook fresh and healthy meals from scratch, source her food locally, keep her house tidy and clean, launder her family’s clothing, arrange regular doctor and dentist appointments, read books to her children, spend special time with each individual child, ferry children to after-school activities, cope with conflict creatively, stay patient and calm amidst the great and constant storm of chaos, spend meaningful and romantic time with her partner, and even do paid work on occasion? Oh, and still make space to nurture herself.
I ask because this is the kind of mom I strive to be. And because we’re all familiar with that Perfect Mom ideal. We’re bombarded with images of her.
I also ask because it’s the kind of mom that I’m not.
I’m not against setting the bar high. I want to learn and achieve and strive to do better. But when I look at that list of Perfect Mom achievements, it becomes really clear that the ideal is not just impossible, but improbable, even mythical.
There is no way, for example, to do paid work while caring for children. I might be able to involve my children (with effort and time lost and extra mess afterward) in helping to cook a meal, but I can’t involve them in helping me write a story (my paid work). In fact, as anyone knows who’s ever chased a toddler around house, in order to do that work, I need my children to be elsewhere entirely, being looked after by someone else (though the television is also an occasionally effective babysitter). Which completely nixes the possibility of Perfect Mom-dom.
In fact, the answer to how does she do it? is: She doesn’t. Those of us who occasionally look like we’re achieving the impossible are working with smoke and mirrors. We’re magicians of special effects. We’re faking it.
And I wonder whether there’s something intrinsically wrong with that, have we created an image of motherhood that is both alluring and ultimately disappointing. And yet …
I strongly dislike wallowing, complaining, whining. I think negativity is corrosive and infects others, too. Part of my mothering goal is to be as positive as possible, to create an optimistic family culture, to live inside even the most difficult situations and cope with grace and humour. To forgive my own mistakes and be careful not to judge others, too.
Part of faking it is reminding myself of what is possible.
But maybe I should be reminding myself that there’s an imperfect human being behind the curtain. And sharing that conflicted, often harassed and frustrated self.
Are those ideals even my own, at heart? Really? How do I know?
One more question: Is there a Perfect Dad?
Note: This is cross-posted from my Moms Are Feminist’s Too blog, because it applies equally to what I’m doing here, and what I’d like to be doing there.
Above is the hard copy of my women’s studies project. Some of you were involved in it, having responded to my questionnaire on a separate blog created for the project, called Moms Are Feminists Too. Thanks for your participation. I continue to feel inspired to add content and thought to that blog, even though it feels like I’m formulating ideas even as I go along. The above zine was produced with a great deal of self-doubt, and I almost didn’t hand it in, despite the effort behind it. I almost handed in an alternative production that was tidy and pleasant and not very activist-y (yes–that is how much of a keener, I am–I actually completed this single project TWICE). The zine you see above was produced late at night in a fit of scissors-ing, pasting, and scrawling. The words came from the heart and were not exactly well-planned, and I lost a few marks for that, but the emotion and purpose must have come through because the prof liked it enough to keep it.
I confess that the project surprised me in a number of different ways. It surprised me that I felt this passionately about motherhood and work, and the value (or cultural undervaluing, to be more precise) of children and childcare. I was surprised by how hard it was for me to step out and declare a position. It was difficult even to declare myself a feminist, with all the negative connotations associated with that word, and because this blog, Obscure CanLit Mama, has never had much interest in politicizing family. It doesn’t seem the place for it. I wonder why not?
Here’s another tiny and rather ironic revelation that came over me on the drive home from my last class, tonight. I thought: gee, I kind of took this class to see whether my brain could still retain information and regurgitate it on command (which is what most educational testing schemes require of students). Apparently, I still can. Really, it stands to reason that I’d be much the same student now as then. So why the heck did I think my capacity to be a “good” student might have changed? Easy. Because in between the last time I was a student, and now, I gave birth to four children. Somewhere along the line, I must have bought into that theory about “motherbrain.” You know, how motherhood fuzzes our brains, how we become all leaky and exhausted and incapable of rational thought. Forever. Um. Damn! I cannot believe that some part of me actually believed that theory enough that I needed to test myself, to prove myself. Personally, I think motherbrain is probably the same as fatherbrain–caused by severe sleep deprivation, and, generally, passing post-infancy. This is just one small example of how insidious these messages are, how ever-present, how we tell them to ourselves, and pull them into ourselves, and how they have the potential to keep us from exploring wider possibilities, or pushing beyond what’s expected of us–and what we expect of ourselves.
This class has actually been something I never anticipated it being. It’s been consciousness-raising. (And I already considered myself a feminist). Oh, how I would like to push my children’s gender boundaries just a little bit more, how I would like for all of them to share those best qualities that shouldn’t be gendered at all. Kindness, gentleness, empathy, grace, ambition. To be thoughtful, hardworking, confident, open. To lead, to share, to cooperate, to give. To be creative, active, brave. Never to fear judgement. To develop job skills and domestic skills, and to be loving caregivers.
I have not been a good blogger this week and there’s a reason. The reason is that I have started writing a parenting column twice a week for a new website that will launch in December. I’ll invite you there, when it goes live. Meantime, though there’s no direct poaching of subject matter (well, not in the columns I worked on this week), there is a general overlap between the genres. The columns are polished, obviously, and much more topically focused. But are blog-like in that I’m talking about real things that are really happening.
But I need to continue this blog, and push to find a few minutes here and there (like right now–while CJ “washes” every plastic dish in the house in our kitchen sink while standing precariously under-supervised upon a stool with a revolving seat while juggling lit matches … um, just kidding about that last thing. Please stay calm. And, yes, aren’t I eminently qualified to write a Parenting Column? I find myself muttering that on occasion since landing the gig. Hey, this is a great Parenting Column moment. Parenting Expert over here! Please, nobody look!).
Because I haven’t blogged most of the week, I’ve got an overload of topics on the brain. Such as, how has this return-to-school experiment gone? I’ll tell you. I’m not a student anymore. It’s not part of my identity. It would suck to go back to school for real. It would take some humbling. And a genuine desire to acquire the skills contained within the degree–and to get to the end. That’s the only reason I’d go back. If it felt imperative. I’ve enjoyed stretching my brain, and it’s awfully pleasant to spend a couple of hours away from home every Thursday evening, but, hey, I could accomplish that by going for a walk with a girlfriend, and get some exercise to boot. Also, though he hasn’t explicitly expressed this, I’m pretty sure Kevin is terrified that I might go back to school. This experiment (ONE CLASS THIS TERM!) has proven how hard it would be on the whole family to launch this mother into a new career. It would be a full-family project, and I wouldn’t be the only one making sacrifices. Interesting. Trot over to my Moms Are Feminists Too blog which is where I really should be venting about this subject and discovering creative solutions.
If only I weren’t so tired. Topic four. So Tired. I felt so tired this afternoon it was like being extremely hungry, except insert sleep for hunger. And CJ declined to nap. This took me way back, when, after a night spent up with two kids under two, I’d be so exhausted by mid-morning that I’d try for a brief nap on the living-room floor with Apple-Apple crawling on my head and Albus pulling open my eyelids. Good times.
Well. I have managed to rouse myself in order to cook up a delicious-smelling hamburger curry which simmers on the stove behind me now while light-as-air rice is steaming inside a clay pot in the oven while CJ tries out surfing in a giant wok on the kitchen floor (having safely descended). Some of the things mentioned in the last over-long sentence feel like achievements. Actually, they all do, even the surfing undersupervised (and entirely content) toddler. No one’s going to grade me on these accomplishments, or, likely, even say thanks, but nevertheless … the best moment yesterday was walking onto campus and remembering the warmth of the scene I’d left behind: bean/sausage/endive soup and fresh-baked bread upon the table, which one of the children had set without (major) complaint, my family sitting down to eat. (Though apparently both soup and bread struck out with the two youngest, who dined on cereal instead). Nevertheless. It’s a scene that takes constant vigilance and effort to conjure, day after day; my life. Ours.
Hi readers. Could I ask a favour, please? I’m working on a zine project for my women’s studies class, and have launched a blog to complement it. Both relate to a recent post on how the personal feels political. The blog is called Moms Are Feminists Too. If you are a feminist and a mother, or even a mother who’s thought a bit about feminism, would you consider visiting and responding to my opening questionnaire? It focuses on motherhood, identity, work, and feminism.
I haven’t got any brilliant ideas, yet, for change, but basically want to create a forum to discuss how we can make this job of mothering more valued in our culture. Think of these two extreme characterizations of stay-home mothers: yummy mummies and welfare moms. Think of the negative baggage both of those images carry: on the one hand, we have the self-indugent hyper-privileged moms, and on the other, the lazy, uneducated moms. It’s mean. And it’s prevalent. (Can you think of a different prevailing characterization for motherhood today? If so, I want to know! My fuzzy-mummy brain can’t conjure any up …). (And, yes, I wrote that last sentence on purpose). Stay-at-home dads face similar problems, which makes me think the underlying issue is a general cultural disdain for childcare and children.
Because this is a school-related project, I can’t promise it will have legs past the assignment’s due date. But then again, maybe it will. Thanks in advance for your help and input!
Note: you don’t have agree with everything / anything I’m saying to add your voice to the mix.
Spending the morning alone with CJ is taking me back a few years, to the first year-and-a-bit I spent alone at home with my first-born (his younger sister arrived not quite eighteen months after him, at which point, life became considerably more chaotic). The house was so quiet. I used to turn on the radio, or the television, for company. We were living in a new city and knew no one. I didn’t feel lonely. I was 26 years old, and utterly thrilled by motherhood, captivated by this newfound, instant purpose to my life. I am thinking about this not only because my feelings have changed in ways profound and subtle over the last eight years, but also because we have been discussing the implications of stay-at-home mothering in my women’s studies class. For most of the students, fresh out of high school, this is purely theoretical. For me, it feels deeply personal. That slogan “the personal is the political” is suddenly relevant. At times during last night’s lecture I felt hurt and upset, as when the professor said rather casually something along these lines: most of you aren’t planning to get your degrees so you can stay at home and bake cookies and raise children, are you? Her point being: at this stage in your lives, all of you fresh-faced, ambitious first-years, you’re harbouring bigger plans, right? But that’s me. That’s me in a nutshell. I am the woman with the master’s degree at home with my children baking cookies. My professor was essentially sympathetic to the quandaries and choices families have to make, husband and wife together, in order to raise children in a society that hasn’t really figured out how to support young families: is daycare the answer? Early childhood education? Paternity leaves and benefits? Why is there this unspoken concept of “the mommy track”? Her answer to all of these: it’s the patriarchy, stupid (I paraphrase).
I can’t do this topic justice in one blog post, so herewith, I present a few random thoughts. First, I refuse to think of this (at least) decade spent primarily with my children as lost time, or a waste of my talents and abilities. There was nothing I wanted more than to stay home with my babies. Nothing. No amount of subsidized daycare could have driven me back to work, when I had the option, financially speaking, to stay home. I asked Kevin whether he felt a horrible pang upon returning to work, leaving his babies at home. He couldn’t remember. He is, however, a very active involved father, and I know his feelings toward our children are just as strong as mine. But the truth is, had he wanted (and been able) to stay home, I would have fought him to get to stay home instead. I didn’t want to leave my babies and go back to work. On the other hand, what Betty Friedan was addressing in The Feminine Mystique, “the problem that has no name,” that puzzling, weary, unspoken malaise experienced by many stay-at-home mothers (in the 1960s, and now) is a real phenomenon. It’s a feeling of spiritual lack, unfed by middle-class wealth and comfort; and of personal, often secret, longing. The feeling of being unfulfilled. And guilty, too, becase our children are supposed to fulfill us, somehow–I would argue that still remains the overwhelming trope.
I would like to counter this with a baking-your-cookies-and-eating-them-too philosophy: my own, which is unfolding even now. We live our lives in stages. I’m not a big believer in being able to do–or trying to do–everything all at once. If I am fortunate, my life will stretch long enough to be lived in quite different ways at different times. (Though this is not without compromise). I am coming to the end of the young-child stage, the every day, every minute, pre-verbal, breastfeeding, diapering, lost sleep stage. Of course, my children will continue to need me, but not at this same level of simple intensity. The problems become more complex, but children grow. It’s what they do best.
For me, spending this young-child stage so completely with my young children has been deeply fulfilling. But, like my professor suggested, it is not the only thing that I want to do. I’m getting ready to move along, to enter the world, on occasion, unencumbered by my children (I mean that literally; as a young mother, I felt naked on the rare occasion I was out in public without my kids, I wanted to tell every passing person about their existence; and I don’t feel that need anymore, which is an interesting shift).
What fascinates me about life is how much there is to learn from every situation, every pain, every contact, every seemingly ordinary moment. No one told me to take this class at this moment in my life; in fact, it seemed a bit silly, even self-indulgent. (I am taking it because, should I choose to pursue a degree in midwifery, this course would count toward that). But it has become, like so many of the things I’ve chosen despite no one telling me that I should or could, another entry point for these random pinpricks of light that illuminate my path.
Kevin cropped these for me: Fooey in her school lineup waiting to go in and start this next chapter in her life. We have now been regaled with stories and memories from that day (yes, it was only yesterday), and she was disappointed not to be heading back with the big kids this morning. “I was happy,” she confided as I hugged her (best hug ever) after that first full day. And I was happy for her! And yet my heart is quietly mourning this passage. Here begins her life apart from us–not a large part of her life, of course, not yet, and oh how proud I am of her confidence, her solid nature; but a part nevertheless. She will survive small struggles all by herself. She will manage. She will test out this larger world. She will discover. She will enjoy. Her mind is so eager to be lit with new experiences, to learn, and she will. I think parenting is renewing this pledge over and over: to let go, to trust our children, and to meet them wherever they are–to be in that present place, for them. At the very moment of her birth, this child occupied her space without me
; even then. It’s just that I still see her at that moment, sometimes; especially when I look at these photos. I still see her as she was.
Do you ever have a day when you feel struck by thankfulness, positively overwhelmed? That was my today. It was ordinary enough, I suppose, but filled with small gifts and reversals of fortune everywhere I turned. For example, after supper, my plans to get together with my siblings fell through so instead I rearranged the girls’ room and the playroom (it all started with an old wooden toy fridge, which we received secondhand years ago, falling over and almost crushing CJ; obviously time to get rid of it, and though it seemed like an insignificant object, its removal precipitated a great upheaval of furniture; CJ was unscathed, I must add). After this satisfying exertion, and having some scheduled “free” mama-away time, I threw on my running shoes and ran and ran and ran and ran around the neighbourhood. It felt transcendent. My breathing was easy, my body removed and full of energy, and my mind calm and meditative; the kind of meditation where you’re not really thinking about anything, your mind feels clear, untroubled. I run so rarely, it hadn’t occurred to me I’d be fit enough to arrive at that place of exercise nirvana. Note to self: get out and do this again! Burst blotchy-faced and sweaty through the door only to discover sibs night was back on and there was still an hour before Kevin was due to leave for hockey. So I got out after all. Cancelled out the run by eating soup, salad AND brie-dripping panini (thanks, sis). Arrived home in time for Kevin to get a ride to the first hockey game of the season with his friends–I literally flagged them down as they were pulling out of our driveway.
Okay, now that I write this all out it doesn’t sound special in the least. Neverthless. I’m glad and grateful and the slow-cooker’s been working well (roasted chicken was fabulous) and Kevin packed the kids’ lunches and and and. Full. I’m too full to sleep.
Or not. Never too anything to sleep.
(Can I confess that I’m almost too superstitious to post this entry; pride goeth before a fall, or, if you always think the worst, you’re more likely to be pleasantly surprised, which is not a real saying. Thankfully.)
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